Championships Mark End of Climbing Season Altered by Bus Driver Shortages

Junior Liam Zeilinger bouldering at the Feb. 6 league championship. Photo courtesy of the climbing team.

After a year of only being able to do occasional distanced workouts via Zoom, the GDS climbing team returned to regular competitions this winter. Going into Sunday’s championship meet, the men’s varsity climbing team held a 2–1–1 record and the women’s varsity team held a 2–2 record in the Washington Area Interscholastic Climbing League (WAICL). The women’s team placed third out of seven and the men’s team tied for fourth out of seven at the championship on Feb. 6.

Throughout the season, the team only went to Movement Rockville, the local climbing gym, one to two times per week because of a shortage of bus drivers, according to several climbers. The rest of the daily practices were spent doing workouts at school.

During the period that GDS was virtual, many of the bus drivers that the school contracted with quit and have not been replaced, according to GDS Transportation Director Chris France. “The climbing club used to be able to take advantage of a surplus of buses we had for sports, and this year we just don’t have it,” France said. The climbing team’s limited access to transportation stems from its status as a GDS club rather than a recognized sports team, according to junior and co-captain Liam Zeilinger.

According to GDS Athletic Director David Gillespie, climbing is not a sport at GDS because it is not played in the Mid-Atlantic Conference or the Independent School League. Gillespie added that squash and fencing are considered club activities rather than sports for the same reason. 

For sophomore Joe Finkelstein, the labeling of climbing as a club as opposed to a sports team doesn’t make much sense. “We have competitions, we are very involved, we have practice every day,” he said. “We have all the criteria.”

Movement Rockville only permits 30 climbers from each school to practice at once, according to Zeilinger. Too many people demonstrated interest in joining the team at the club fair to accommodate the gym’s limit, he added, but following a subsequent interest meeting, fewer than 30 people ended up joining the team.

Because of their limited time at Movement Rockville, the climbers have had to adapt their training approach. Without access at GDS to big rock walls, like the ones in competitions—there is a short wall at the LMS that the team used occasionally, according to Finkelstein—the team focused on exercises to work the muscles they use climbing. As the season progressed, Zeilinger explained, he and his teammates shifted their focus to muscles they don’t use while climbing to prevent muscle imbalance.

Senior Elana Spector explained that in competitions climbers are given a total of an hour and a half to both prepare for—that is, choose climbs, stretch and plan their routes—and actually complete the climbs, and she noted the importance of dividing up time between the warmup and choice of climbs. Points are earned for climbs that are completed cleanly—without falls—within the 90-minute timeframe. Spector described each climb “like a puzzle on a wall.”

During competitions, each climber decides between taller “top rope” climbs, where the climber is harnessed in, and lower “bouldering” climbs, where the climber is unbound to the wall. Climbers play to their strengths to maximize their collective score: Spector, for example, said that her technical approach is advantageous to top roping.

Danny Stock, the team’s faculty advisor and coach, emphasized the value of the spirit and energy that the climbers, particularly the upperclassmen, bring: “It really does have a significant impact when your muscles are ready to give out and you have got your team below you yelling you up the last few feet.”

Both the men’s and women’s GDS varsity teams benefited from that supportive energy during the WAICL Championships last Sunday. Senior Evan Banerjee top-roped a grade above what he had completed sophomore year, (climbs are graded on difficulty), and received a round of applause from not only his teammates but climbers from other schools. “There is an aspect of competition, but at the same time everybody is just trying to do their best,” Banerjee said. “Everybody who is a climber has this personal understanding of how meaningful getting up that wall that you struggled so hard on and finally completing that milestone is.

“Our climbing team has this saying that for every ten days of climbing you have three terrible days, six average days, and one amazing day,” Banerjee said. Although the men’s team didn’t make it to the podium, he characterized the team’s results as only one moment in a season full of success and improvement. 

The women’s varsity team finished in third place with many climbers achieving positive results, according to senior Maddie Feldman. “We have a really, really strong female team,” she said. “Our climbers were so strong this year and having five of them at that caliber was really fun to watch.” 

For Feldman, the most important part of the climbing season was not the results, but the people on the team. “Even though I wasn’t a great climber,” she said, “knowing that they exist and that they will always support me in my endeavors is really reassuring, so I am super grateful for that.”

Antonia Brooks contributed reporting.